Funny, Havana doesn't look at all like Judge Neal Solon remembers it from his college Spring Break days.
From explosions to deadly poisons, they tried but he survived!
To say that Fidel Castro is unpopular with US government officials is an understatement. But to imagine that people have tried 638 different ways to kill the man is a bit mind-boggling, is it not? How could this documentary be anything less than supremely interesting? Some how, director Dollan Cannell and his team have found a way.
Facts of the Case
This 79-minute documentary, made for British television, traces Castro's rise to power and the lives of those who knew him and would ultimately try to kill him.
The title 638 Ways to Kill Castro comes from a single moment the film when Fabian Escalante, former security chief for the Castro regime, unflinchingly shares the fact that he has documentation to prove the existence and failure of 638 plots to end the dictator's life. The narrator then lists a few of the more absurd plots, ranging from a poisoned milkshake to an explosive, radio-controlled plane. The remainder of the film focuses less on the myriad ways to kill Castro than on a handful of the men who have tried and failed.
To some, this distinction may seem irrelevant—at most, a slight misrepresentation of the film for the sake of sensationalism. Still, this disparity between title and content is indicative of the fractured way in which the film tells its story.
On the one hand, 638 Ways to Kill Castro is satisfying. The stories told by each of the would-be assassins are fascinating, and they provide a privileged glimpse into a secret history. Men from all sides of these assassination attempts implicate resistance groups, the US government, and government officials, both American and Cuban. It becomes clear, through tales of active US involvement and implicit US sanctioning of men who could rightly be called criminals and terrorists, just how invested in ridding the world of the Castro regime the US government is.
On the other hand, 638 Ways to Kill Castro detracts from its message by trying to be overly playful and stylish. Structured around the stories of men who have been directly involved in plots against Castro, the film seems to have little faith in the inherent appeal of its content. Instead of providing the interviews and historical insight in a manner that allows them to speak for themselves, the filmmakers include stock, noirish footage of a police lineup and a voiceover introducing each of the primary interviewees as "suspects." The film even goes so far as to use footage from classic noir and gangster films to "illustrate" many of the assassination attempts.
These directorial choices cheapen the potency of the film's content immeasurably. Their effect becomes all the more apparent when one sifts through the more than 70 minutes of extra interviews included on the disc, from people ranging from President Jimmy Carter to a CIA agent to a Cuban-American politician. At first, one wonders why some of this material was omitted from the film, as it seems much strong than some of the footage that was ultimately included and could certainly serve the same narrative functions. Upon reflection, it becomes clear that this footage is no stronger than what was ultimately included in the film, it just benefits from the fact that it is undiluted by self-conscious filmmaking and attempts are wryness. The interviews are fascinating and provide a glimpse of just how great this film could have been.
BCI Eclipse's presentation of 638 Ways to Kill Castro is on par with what one might expect. Beyond the wealth of extra interviews, there are no additional extras, and the video and audio reflect the nature of the film. Visually, the film looks like what it is: something shot on a relatively low budget, using video and mostly available light. The audio is clear and effective, and neither facet of the audiovisual presentation ever distracts from the film itself.
The story that the filmmaker is trying to tell in 638 Ways to Kill Castro is an important and interesting one. The archival footage and recent interviews are insightful and candid, it is just unfortunate that self-conscious filmmaking had to get in the way. Ultimately, the film is worth seeing, even if it is unlikely to be something you'll watch more than once.
The filmmakers will do 638 hours of community service for ruining a perfectly good story; all other parties are free to go.
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